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LoveWilliamsburgLife.com/Erin McCarthy

12 Facts About the “Time to Make the Donuts” Guy

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LoveWilliamsburgLife.com/Erin McCarthy

In 1980, Michael Vale was a working actor who had logged some time on the stage and landed a few small parts in popular TV shows and movies, but was hardly a well-known face. Then Dunkin' Donuts came calling and all that changed for the New York City native.

In the early 1980s, Vale became "Fred the Baker," Dunkin’ Donuts’s sleep-deprived mascot who spent most of the next two decades baking up fresh batches of donuts to be glazed, frosted, and ravenously consumed. Here are 12 things you might not know about the man behind the mug.

1. HE WAS A CLASSICALLY TRAINED ACTOR.

Like many famous pitchmen, Vale’s training was as a classical actor. As a student at the Dramatic Workshop at The New School in New York City, his classmates included (Oscar winner) Rod Steiger, (Oscar nominee) Tony Curtis, and (Golden Globe nominee) Ben Gazzara.

2. HE PLAYED A CAB DRIVER IN A HATFUL OF RAIN.

Vale’s film debut came in 1957, playing a taxi driver in Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain, adapted by Michael V. Gazzo from his play of the same name.

3. HE WAS IN MARATHON MAN.

Vale’s most prominent movie role was as a jewelry salesman in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man in 1976, starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Vale deemed the opportunity to work with Olivier “the most wonderful experience of my life ... He called [us actors] schmucks, but he did it with love.”

4. HE WAS A REGULAR ON BROADWAY.

Of his appearance in a summer stock performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, Vale once remarked: “I was thrown to the lions.” He made his Broadway debut in 1962, in the appropriately named stinker The Egg, which closed after eight performances. The Impossible Years, which debuted on October 13, 1965, lasted much longer—a full 670 performances.

5. YOU PROBABLY CAUGHT HIM ON ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE CHILDHOOD SHOWS.

From 1961 through 1988, Vale had bit parts on a number of popular television shows, including Car 54, Where Are You?, Kojak, and 3-2-1 Contact (in the recurring role of Soapy Suds).

6. HE PITCHED COTTAGE CHEESE BEFORE HE PITCHED DONUTS.

Before he became the sleepy-eyed face of Dunkin’ Donuts, Vale was a pitchman for Breakstone’s cottage cheese and sour cream. As the irascible “Sam Breakstone,” he starred in a series of commercials where his pursuit of perfection caused him to rant and rave, with each bit ending with a pint-sized terrier nipping at his pant leg. This spot from 1977 co-stars Jeffrey Tambor (a.k.a. George Bluth Sr.).

7. HE PLAYED FRED THE BAKER FOR 15 YEARS.

Vale landed his gig as Fred the Baker in 1982 and played the part for 15 years, until his retirement in 1997. Of the estimated 100 commercials he made in that time, he once joked to Entertainment Weekly that this one was his favorite, because “I got paid twice.”

8. VALE WASN'T THE DUNKIN' MARKETING TEAM'S FIRST CHOICE.

Of the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the role of Fred the Baker, Vale was not the marketing team’s first choice; they were more interested in landing well-known actor-comedian Lou Jacobi. “As soon as Michael Vale walked into the bathroom in his pajamas and said ‘Time to make the doughnuts, time to make the doughnuts,’ we knew,” ad exec Rob Berger told CNN in 2005.

9. FRED'S CATCHPHRASE TOOK ON A LIFE OF ITS OWN.

Vale’s “time to make the donuts” catchphrase became so popular that Dunkin’ Donuts founder William Rosenberg used it as the title for his 2001 autobiography.

10. VALE ONLY EVER MADE ONE DONUT.

While his on-screen persona was a tireless baker, Vale copped to only making one donut himself. “I didn't add the sprinkles or frosting,” he quipped. “I was too exhausted.”

11. FRED'S RETIREMENT WAS KIND OF A BIG DEAL.

When market research indicated that customers did not want to see Fred leave, the company created an entire advertising campaign around his retirement. Bob Dole, Mary Lou Retton, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Larry Bird appeared in a series of commercials, offering Fred their thoughts on retirement. On September 22, 1997, Dunkin’ Donuts even threw Fred a retirement party and parade in Boston, giving away nearly six million donuts.

12. VALE PASSED AWAY IN 2005.

Vale passed away in New York City on December 24, 2005 from complications with diabetes. He was 83 years old.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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